'Freaked out': Big money industry crippling salmon population in Alaska, natives say

"Big money, big mining, big fishing is the big threat to our natural, wild way of life here in Alaska."

ByJonny Harvey KGO logo
Sunday, December 10, 2023
'Big money' crippling salmon population in Alaska, natives say
International fishing companies have created an untenable living situation for Alaskan natives featured in the newest season of National Geographic's, "Life Below Zero: First Alask

There is no more salmon. That's what native Alaskan Ricko DeWilde is most concerned with these days. The cast member and segment producer on National Geographic's, "Life Below Zero: First Alaskans," spoke with us about what he describes as an untenable living situation.

Once flowing with abundance, native tribes have been sounding the alarm about the overfishing of Alaskan salmon and other native fish by international fishing companies, essentially wiping out natives' main source of food as well as a cultural touchstone.

"That's a way of life that we're losing right there," DeWilde said.

Joel Jacko arrives at his aunt Sarah Thiele's home to begin their day of fishing.
(National Geographic for Disney)

Big Money

The natives' struggle with "big money" when it comes to food is highlighted in the new season of "Life Below Zero: First Alaskans."

"Any of the fishing along the Yukon River has been prohibited," DeWilde said. "The commercial fishing industry is just running rampant out here and it's big money. They take over to board of fish, they take over to politicians, they have them in their pocket and it becomes like a fish mafia out here."

Ricko DeWilde in the winter season, trapping in the wilderness.
(BBC Studios Reality Productions, LLC/JR Masters)

Big Fishing

DeWilde claims that international corporations have essentially taken over the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the key decision makers on who gets to fish when and where.

"I wish more people would realize what's going on with this fishing industry out here," he said. "That demand that you see for Alaskan seafood is what's crippling the river system out here. [Commercial fishers] are getting too much out on the ocean and they're intercepting these fish before they even get to the river water. That's impacting our way of life as far as native people out here."

Cole Sturgis catches a winter king salmon while on his boat.
(BBC Studios Reality Productions, LLC/Lukas Taylor)

"Big fishing," as DeWilde puts it, is impacting the state's vast ecosystem. Not just salmon.

"You're also seeing a huge crash in the crab," he said. "There was [sic] billions of crab that just disappeared. It's a terrible domino effect that I see coming in Alaska and it scares me and it's sad to even have to talk about it."

He went on to say, "Commercial fishing can't just keep going on just because they make money. We're a small percentage of taking of the fish and we're prohibited from fishing completely."

DeWilde says the companies are not fishing for salmon, but for native Alaskan Pollock fish or others popular in fast food fish sandwiches.

Like a fish mafia out here.
Ricko DeWilde

Most salmon caught is a product of bycatch, catching another animal or fish fisherman do not want, cannot sell, or are not allowed to keep.

"If there was a boycott on fast food fish sandwiches, we'd probably see a big impact on helping save the salmon," he said. "Bycatch is what's destroying [the salmon population]."

Big Mining

Ambler Road, a proposed 211-mile road to the Ambler Mining District in northwest Alaska, would cross the Koyukon, Tanana Athabascans and Iñupiat native lands, according to the Associated Press.

Natives say this will directly impact the ecosystem in the area, directly impacting the salmon population.

"They dig into streams, those are salmon-spawning streams," DeWilde said. "They go all the way up these rivers, thousands of miles, just to lay their eggs in this fresh water."

Public comments on the project will be accepted up until Dec. 22. A public hearing on the project will begin at 5 p.m. local time on Dec. 13. DeWilde hopes the project can still be stopped if enough people raise concerns.

"I'm hoping more people chime in," he said. "The only way to stop big money is big numbers of people."

Daniel Apassingok looks out into the frozen Bering Sea, looking for walrus.
(National Geographic)

With frigid weather as an added obstacle, native Alaskans are scared by this clear threat of big business on native land.

"I'm freaked out by big money," DeWilde said. "Big money, big mining, big fishing is the big threat to our natural, wild way of life here in Alaska."

You can learn more about Alaska's salmon problem and how native Alaskans live on a new season of "Life Below Zero: First Alaskans." New episodes are available on National Geographic and previous seasons are streaming now on Disney+ and Hulu.

Disney is the parent company of National Geographic, Hulu, Disney+ and this station.